Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Ol' Remus

Greater Metropolitan Downtown Rome City Center, 306-337 AD

Model by Italo Gismondi, 1:240 scale. Built 1933 through 1971. Photo: ssqq.com

Rome, 509 BC. Two and a half centuries of monarchy ended in revolutionary war. A commission of distinguished citizens formalized a constitutionart-link-symbol-tiny-grey-arrow-only.gifestablishing the Republic and the rule of law. It lasted almost five hundred years. In 27 BC the era of empire began, which also lasted about five hundred years. The early emperors made a show of deference to the Senate, some promised a return to constitutional government, but the empire sank ever deeper into tyranny and dissolution until it collapsed utterly in the fifth century AD and the Dark Ages began.

Thomas Cole summed it up in the most dramatic way possible with his series of five paintings called The Course of Empireart-link-symbol-tiny-grey-arrow-only.gif. The Republic, perhaps the finest hour of ancient times, is represented not at all, he takes us directly from Arcadia to Empire. Like Holmes's dog that didn't bark, it may be Cole's strongest statement.

The notion of progression from kingdom to republic, to empire and collapse was well in place by Cole's time, in fact, it was the accepted reading of history long before the Constitutional Convention. Consider Franklin's statement, 'you have a Republic, if you can keep it.' In our time the notion has taken on the urgency of impending inevitability, perhaps because Sovereign movements, the Austrian School and the like can hardly rise Phoenix-like until there are ashes to rise from, or perhaps because Julius Caeser didn't precipitate a civil war by crossing the Rubicon with a gaggle of rebels in tow, he crossed it in good order with a regular field army. The parallels to our own "repurposed" commands and the ongoing militarization of the DHS are ominous.

Just as Medieval Christianity was fond of using the ruins of Rome as evidence of its own spiritual and historical imperative—although zero maintenance and constant earthquakes are at least equally convincing—so too are we told the collapse is about to happen, is happening or has happened because of this or that imperative.

Alas, there is no good news. It's true, collapse is upon us, although the imperatives currently on auction are being bid up past the point of farce. Strip away the ancient narrative, recount only our own history since we overthrew King George's rule and only the deficient or devious could fail to reconstruct it from that source alone. Nor are the utopians-in-waiting entirely without merit, historians suggest the former empire's standard of living went up markedly after its disintegration. The reason is easy to find. As Myers said of popular assemblies in the era of empire,

"Since the free, or practically free, distribution of corn [old sense, meaning cereal crops] and the public shows were drawing to the capital from all quarters crowds of the poor, the idle, and the vicious, these assemblies were rapidly becoming simply mobs controlled by noisy demagogues and unscrupulous military leaders aiming at the supreme power in the state."
Ancient History, Philip Myers, Ginn & Co., 1902, pg. 452

At present we think of cities in this way, Detroit and DC and Atlanta are standout examples, but as we lurch from emergency to emergency, each cycle worse than the last, states, then regions and then nations will be subsumed in the same accelerating cascade. Our former republic is so fundamentally and openly compromised, so hostile to the minimums of the alleged social contract, so distant from its legitimate charter, so venal and corrupt that DC can't acknowledge itself for the lawless enterprise it is without precipitating a crisis on that ground alone. This is the one indigestible contradiction preventing effective action. Illegitimacy's every act is, necessarily, illegitimate.

What lies on the other side of the collapse can't yet be said, perhaps a patchwork of warlord territories and Oneida Communities and patriot redoubts. Or constitutional government could be reestablished. Or perhaps it's to be long-term martial law, or simultaneous civil wars and military occupation by UN peacekeepers. Such possibilities are equally likely and unlikely while the dice are in the air. The least likely proposition is nothing bad will happen because "this time it's different."

As a people we can say our intentions were honorable, and they were. We can say the dark visions of the doomers aren't inevitable, and they aren't. We can say all this and more but it never has been different, and it isn't different now.


  1. Rome, 509 BC: http://www.woodpilereport.com/photos/Gismondi%27s-model-of-Rome-AD306-337.jpg

    Africa, 2,521 years later: http://www.sciencephoto.com/image/395280/large/C0097695-Nuer_village,_aerial_view-SPL.jpg

    Any questions?

    (Of course, that's all the evil European White-man's fault, if not for him Africa would be a verdant paradise!